I have been pondering some ethics-related threads I’ve been following elsewhere, and in the process of so doing I’ve been mulling over an old ethical chestnut. That is, how general–or generalizable–or, to put it another way, universal–do the tenets of an ethical system have to be?
We have an intuition that the rules we follow are not just arbitrary, but somehow just. One definition of that would be that they apply to everyone in a similar situation. For example, the principal’s son shouldn’t get away with something that any other student couldn’t get away with. If I’m busted for speeding, it ought not to matter that I’m the judge’s cousin. Murder is wrong for anyone to commit; and so on.
We also have an intuition of extenuating circumstances and specific contexts. The guy who’s speeding to get his wife or child to the hospital isn’t likely to be judged as harshly (if at all) as someone who just treats the public highways as his own personal drag strip. In a society with pre-modern technology, women’s participation in some areas of the workforce might be less possible than in modern times. And so on here, too.
So where is the balance struck? Do ancients get a pass on slavery because conditions were different then, for example? Is the attempted destruction of the Canaanites by the Israelites in the Bronze Age different from the attempted destruction of the Jews by the Nazis in the Atomic Age? Is freedom of religion OK in some societies and not in others?
I think the problem here is that there is a danger of two extremes. Universal ethics can become a tyranny of enforcing exact, uniform, unchangeable rules on everyone, regardless of the situation, with no leniency, mercy, or exemptions. Javert’s attitude to Jean Valjean springs to mind in this case. Obviously, this is undesirable. The other extreme is moral relativism, which implies that every society (or perhaps even every individual) is a law unto itself. Thus, we can’t judge Nazis because their society was their ethical business. This, too, seems obviously wrong.
I think in a more subtle way this affects discussions of ethics. One can be so zealous in defending one’s ideals that counterexamples or possible extenuation circumstances are ignored. There is the feeling that if exceptions are allowed, the whole ethical system collapses. For example, if I were a vegetarian arguing that meat-eating is always wrong, and someone counters by saying, “What about the Inuit?” I am put in a bind. The Inuit were marvelously adapted to a diet of nearly 100% meat, even to the extent of deriving essential vitamins that most human populations get from plants by eating seal livers. They thrived on a diet that would be very bad for most humans, and when modern civilization moved many of them to a more modern Western diet with less meat and far more carbohydrates, the rates of diabetes, heart problems, and other such diseases skyrocketed for them.
Thus, in this hypothetical case, the argument for universality seems doomed. Thus, the person making the argument might feel threatened–”If meat’s OK for Inuit, then my opponents might ask why it’s not OK for others, too–and then my vegetarianism has no moral basis!”
For the record, I think there is a middle ground between “applies to everyone all the time under all conceivable sets of circumstances” and “whatever floats your boat”. I’m just not sure there’s a clear set of rules for finding such middle ground, or that there aren’t different ways of getting to it in different situations. In any case, this is why I’m not too keen on Kant’s Categorical Imperative (I know our Host likes it, but it to me it smacks too much of the aforementioned “applies to everyone all the time under all conceivable sets of circumstances”) or of moral relativism or systems that approach it (they smack too much of the “whatever” view of ethics).